- Armchair Walker #3 – The Bird Spa
On the northern edge of the village, the short steep lane called Stony Sleight demands a bit of care. The surface is rubbly and irregular, with ribs of exposed reddish rock halfway up. You stumble and stub your boot toes as you climb, you skid and slither on the way down. But it’s a short way down from the hills to the village, and a favourite singing spot for birds towards nightfall.
In these strange limbo days of lockdown, walking has taken on a curious sheen of intensity. One’s eyes and ears seem double-focused on the details of grasses and leaves, the timbre of bird song and the shapes of the hills. Corners of the woods and fields that I had taken as read demand that I stop, look and listen, rather than powering on by with the next skyline in mind. There’s an acute pleasure in this slower and denser tempo, once you surrender to it.
I’ve known of the old stone-lined sheep dip near the top of Stony Sleight since I was a boy. I must have trudged past it a hundred times. But until a few days ago I’d never turned aside to open the gate, sit on the bank and simply watch.
There must be a spring in the bank or the sheep dip itself, because the level is pretty constant, a few inches of dull bronze water with a muddy margin and some stones and rocks. Leafy ash branches swing low above the pool, offering concealment. Flies and midges are always circling over the water. In short, it’s a perfect place for birds to take their regular baths.
I’ve stopped to watch the evening ablutions of the birds several times this week. The first on the waterline is generally a blue tit. A coal tit with a black waistcoat has been a regular. Other bathers have included a great tit, a robin, and a young and wary thrush. Last night at the sheep dip there was a chiffchaff with a dashing piratical stripe through its eye, and a female blackcap with a pale chest and velvety brown cap. They all follow the same ritual – a hasty duck of the head to begin with, then full immersion, splashing the water all over themselves and sending up rainbow-tinted showers of droplets, washing off dust, dirt and miniature parasites before flying up into the hanging foliage to preen and smooth their feathers.
It might be anthropomorphic to suggest that these little songbirds revel in their sheep dip shower-baths, but that’s exactly what it looks like.
- Armchair Walker #2 – Off Grid in Dragondown Wood
Quarry Hill looms on the skyline to the south of the village. A steep climb up, and we have the hilltop to ourselves, a humpback plateau of thin grass over limestone where the last of the early purple orchids are bowing to the inevitable. We savour the moment in an absence of traffic roar from the all-but-deserted valley road. We sit and stare round the compass, north over the village to the snaky curves of Slippery Lane, west over the massive dark red face of the old quarry and on down into a place apart, the green vale of Dragondown.
The vale lies under Quarry Hill, and a dragon lies under the vale. So the old story says. Anything or anyone could be hiding in those dense old woods that cap the slope beyond. Massive thistles grow six feet tall there, their multiple heads packed tight, defended by collars of formidable spikes.
A wandering path climbs in among the trees, and as it dips we find ourselves ankle deep in wild garlic whose flowers are beginning to droop in the shade of the canopy. A little spring issues from a cleft among the garlic, trickling along channels between miniature walls of rounded stones placed there by hand. Who could have the time and involvement to create such a water garden? We get our answer down in the heart of the wood when we spot a cluster of canvas tents and round wooden houses deep among the trees. No flimsy benders, no moth-eaten shelters here. These are proper dwellings stoutly made and carefully maintained, with a cookhouse, a pond and amphitheatre seating. These folk are not campers, but permanent residents of Dragondown Wood.
Birdsong pours through the trees, a green light dapples the path as it winds behind the settlement. On a summer’s day like this, off-grid living looks easy. In a freezing wet February it must be all about grit and stubbornness. Hats off to anyone who can genuinely live this way.
On the upland beyond we meet a bunch of young White Park cattle with black noses and long curvilinear horns. They snuff our fingers and sneeze explosively. Good job the virus is only for human consumption; not one of the heifers has a hankie.
- Armchair Walker #1 – Three Hares Field
From the crooked elbow of Slippery Lane you can look back over the village and the valley. It’s a view that never palls in any season: the red and grey roofs, the chimneys and windows among their trees, and on across the flat country to far hills, Quantocks and a hint of Exmoor, pale blue with distance against the sky.
It’s a fight for life in the verges of Slippery Lane. The flowers have left the season of yellow, primroses and celandines, and they are slipping out of their blue attire too, bluebells and violets. Now crimsons and whites are all the rage, tall red campion shooting up two feet tall, racing for the light against the delicate white fretwork of cow parsley – gypsy lace, the schoolchildren used to call it, and maybe still do. Snakes of spineless bryony twine round anything they can find to support them in the hedges.
This Time of Covid is a curious mix of curse and blessing. The plug has been pulled out of the socket. No engine roar, no tyre swish from the valley road. No cars climb Slippery Lane, poisoning walkers with their diesel farting. Birdsong seems twice as loud, the woods seethe with insect hum. No con trails in the abnormally blue sky. And a tantalising spring of unbelievably sunny days in a long straight line.
Halfway up the hill we glance over a gate and are struck stock still by something we’ve never seen here before – three brown hares, great fat fellows, twitching their black-tipped ears in the lush unmown grass of Long Field. They face one another like cats, socially distancing, but only just.
A chiffchaff has been getting his declaration in order down in Valley Wood. Chiff-chiff! Chaff! Chiff-chaff-chaff! Chiff-chaff! Now he stows his gab, and there’s just the fat hum of a bee in the campion and a rustle of grasses in Long Field – Three Hares Field, it will be from now on – where the hares crouch and lollop, nibbling the stems and measuring each other up, indifferent to our little existence.